So, we’re here. The last film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. I was supposed to be writing this review when I got home from work yesterday but I was absolutely exhausted. I figured future Laura could deal with it tonight. Well, future Laura isn’t happy now. Especially because, after a rough day, a work friend and I were in desperate need of a drink to unwind. So, I got home late and am madly trying to finish this. Which is a shame because I still haven’t quite worked out how I feel about Green Book. It was something I was really looking forward to but didn’t really know much about. It sounded a bit like Driving Miss Daisy which didn’t appeal but, let’s be honest, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali were enough to get me interested. Both are very interesting actors and I imaged they would work well together. But then I watched it. And I had a lot of thoughts. So many that, earlier tonight, I couldn’t explain it to my drinking buddy. God knows what that means for this post.
Green Book tells the story of pianist Don Shirley’s (Mahershala Ali) tour of the Deep South and the unlikely friendship he struck up with his driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). The name comes from The Negro Motorist Green Book which was a guidebook that helped African-American travellers to find restaurants and motels that would accept them. The pair are, obviously, opposites at first but eventually they find some common ground. Tony is uneasy about black people and is wary about taking the job. Don Shirley is aware of the response most people have to his race and tries to show the best of himself. This, in turn, finds him alienated from both black and white society. Something that both astounds and annoys Tony, who assumes the pianist will fit into his preconceived stereotype. But, the well-meaning bouncer, eventually overcomes his prejudices and saves Don Shirley from a host of bother on the road.
Green Book is a charming film and one that is perfectly watchable. I know that sounds like a bad thing but I did really enjoy this film. The two main actors are amazing and have undeniable chemistry. Whether or not the depiction of the two men is accurate, you really believe in the friendship that grows throughout the narrative. These are roles that aren’t really typical for either men but both take to them naturally. And both men deserve the various accolades they’ve been given. So much of this film rests upon their shoulders and it is because of these performances that you stick around. Add to that a noteworthy turn from Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife and you have a pretty great ensemble. And a film that completely sells its 1962 setting. The colour palette is perfect and really manages to evoke that time.
And I get why the story has been well received. Especially in 2018/19. The story of a racist changing his mind and befriending a black guy is desirable now more than ever. And, in some ways, having his story told in the way it has been is important. Just the central image of a white man in the front seat whilst the black guy relaxes in the back is an appealing one. We want to see Tony leave his cosy world and really see what his country is like. We want him to see the world from a different perspective and understand that his attitude isn’t right. Green Book tries to deal with the subject of race and racism in an easy to handle package that makes a statement without beating you in the face with it. And, I have to say, it manages to be funny, emotional whilst still having that slight darkside. It’s a well-balanced film.
But… I can’t help but think there was something off about it. In the same way that I think there’s something off about The Help. You know, that Oscar nominated film where a white girl solves racism? The film in which a white girl is considered brave for maintaining a friendship with black maids and showcasing their story. The film where a white girl’s love for her old maid is so strong that she manages to change the mind of people in her community. It uses the white saviour trope as a way of alleviating that white guilt that audience members would most likely feel when faced with their not so ancient history. Instead of focusing on the civil rights movement and depicting key figures in African-American communities coming together to fight injustice, white audiences are treated to the image of white characters changing things instead.
And, whist Tony is nowhere near as bad as Eugenia, we do have several weird and uncomfortable scenes that show him to be this white saviour type. I mean, what was anyone thinking with that scene where he teachers Don Shirley how to eat fried chicken? Did nobody read that script and go “oooh, is this just a bit too much…”? You could argue that it’s simply because this film was co-written by Tony’s son and is told from his perspective. But there is no denying that Tony’s actions are the ones celebrated here. We see Don Shirley take a stand against racists but it is not until Tony steps in to validate that stand that anything happens. It’s massively fucked up. Especially from a film that disguises it so well thanks to the lead actors.
This is such an Oscar film that it’s ridiculous. It wants to jump on the social justice train and ride its way to victory. But what does this add to the narrative? Absolutely fuck all. It’s the same trite nonsense that allows white people to feel better and racists to feel slightly less racist. Green Book was a lovely film to sit down and watch. It’s just the kind of film that made me more uncomfortable the more I thought about it. And more uncomfortable when I thought about all of the glowing reviews it got.